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  • Pulling Down the CloudsThe O'odham Intellectual Tradition during the "Time of Famine"
  • David Martínez (bio)

Members of the Pima, or Akimel O'odham, community, despite their experiment with a pre-1934 constitutional government, not to mention their conversion to Christianity and sending their children to school, have not generated writers and activists as did their tribal peers in other parts of the United States such as Oklahoma, the Upper Plains, and the Northeast.1 More specifically, as of the early twentieth century the Pimas did not have the equivalent of Charles A. Eastman (Dakota), Zitkala-Ša (Lakota), Francis La Flesche (Omaha/Osage), Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai-Apache), or Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), who were luminaries of the progressive Indian movement and members of the Society of American Indians. In fact, the SAI's 1913 list of active members includes only five Pimas: Mrs. Jessie C. Morago, Lewis D. Nelson, Miss Mary W. Nelson, John Plake, and Miss Olie Walker, who were all residents of Sacaton, Arizona.2 Furthermore, throughout the eight volumes of the SAI's journal, spanning 1913 through 1920, not a single Pima contributor was published, though occasionally one of the O'odham communities was mentioned in an article, usually within the larger context of problems with the Indian Bureau. In fact, the first time the Pimas were mentioned in the SAI's journal was in the very first issue. Carlos Montezuma (Apache) wrote an article titled "Light on the Indian Situation" in which he dramatically recounted—as he would countless times later—his legendary abduction by a Pima raiding party.3 Why was this the case? And what is the significance of a figure like Thin Leather, who contributed to Russell's Bureau of American Ethnology report on the Pima between November 1901 and June 1902? On the one hand, Thin Leather bequeathed a substantial legacy of traditional stories to the Pima community that is still [End Page 1] relevant to contemporary Pima studies. On the other hand, Thin Leather only spoke O'odham, neither reading nor writing any English and thus requiring a translator in his work with Frank Russell, Jesse Walter Fewkes, and J. W. Lloyd.

In a footnote to the introduction of Donald M. Bahr's book on the Hohokam, which bridges Thin Leather's work with contemporary O'odham studies, he states that "Thin Leather's mythology … was taken down independently three times, first by Frank Russell (published in condensed form in 1908), then by J. W. Lloyd (published in a more oral, more Indian English in 1911), and finally by J. W. Fewkes (excerpts published in 1912)."4 All of the fieldwork for each of these projects, however, was conducted prior to 1910, producing by turns "The Pima Indians" by Frank Russell, Aw-aw-tam Indian Nights by J. William Lloyd, and "Casa Grande, Arizona" by Jesse Walter Fewkes. Both Russell and Fewkes published their reports with the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1904–5 and in 1906–7, respectively, whereas Lloyd published his work independently with the Lloyd Group of Westfield, New Jersey, in 1911. Also noteworthy is the fact that, whereas Thin Leather is listed as merely an informant in the American Ethnology reports, he is given more prominent credit in Aw-aw-tam Indian Nights, in which the title page describes the book as "being the Myths and Legends of the Pimas of Arizona as received by J. William Lloyd from Comalk-Hawk-Kih (Thin Buckskin) thru the interpretation of Edward Hubert Wood." It is between these three works that Thin Leather emerges as a prominent but much-overlooked figure of the Pima intellectual tradition.

In comparison to his contemporaries in the progressive Indian community, does it make sense to call Thin Leather an "indigenous intellectual"? In order to appreciate the answer that follows, there are four things that one ought to bear in mind. First, each indigenous community in its own way was capable of addressing the most poignant issues of the human condition: life and death, human nature, origins, community, and the like. Second, one is only an indigenous intellectual if one is an indigenous person first and foremost, which includes valuing one's people...


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